It wasn’t your fault. You never had a chance.
But you did try.
And shouldn’t that count for something?
You wake up on a path. All gravel and stone and point and edge. It’s dawn, or it’s dusk, and the world is cast in grey.
The smell of rain bleeds through the air. Around you, a prairie. Yellow-green grass stretches from here to the horizon.
And on that horizon, a house.
It’s an old house, by the looks of it. Small, almost cozy, made of faded brick and yellowed wood. Warm light spills through the windows. You can hear voices echo and chatter within. Glasses clink. A dinner party? And then it’s silent.
Wasn’t this home?
It thunks in reply. It’s the kind of door that calls out for a sturdy metal knocker. As it is, it’s just… bare. Thick. Sturdy. Made from a rich, deep wood.
Your grandmother had doors like these, back when she lived in her old house in the suburbs. Or– no. It wasn’t the doors. It was her table. Her dining room table, mahogany made. You’d sit there every time you visited, idly kicking at the legs, watching her bustle around the kitchen. She always reminded you to use a coaster for your cups, as kindly as she could. Cups of… tea? Tea. She made you tea, years before you knew the difference between bitter and bad. You’d make faces, and she’d make them right back. Drink up, it’s good for you. Never mind the taste. But then she’d find some reason to stick her head in the fridge, and never seemed to stand back up until the sugar bowl had stopped clinking.
You didn’t use coasters, though. You just never thought to. That was the trouble. Because one day, while you were watching old movies in the other room, your mug was left undrunk on that table. So when your mom arrived to take you home, she started reorganising and rearranging, like she did. Your brother was done with tennis, she said, so hurry up. But she picked up the cup, and–
Your grandmother had only smiled. It’s just a table, she said. Never mind the stain. She hugged you, and pinched your cheeks until you smiled back. No harm done. It’s a damn waste of tea, though. Some people might like their tea cold, she said, but that’s why they lost the war. You didn’t understand, but you grinned. You couldn’t help it. And the next time you visited, you remembered to use a coaster.
Grass underfoot. The cicadas whir. A cellar door juts from the ground, bolted shut. You were never allowed down into the cellar as a kid. You used to wonder what’s down there. Now you’ll never know.
The back porch seen better years. There’s an old rocking chair up there, overlooking the garden. It doesn’t have much to look at.
Around you, the prairie whispers.
At the foot of the hill is the tree you’d climb. Water drips from its leaves. You run your hands over the bark, feeling the grooves and notches and penknife carvings underskin. The phrase “old soul” slinks through your mind. This tree has seen lifetimes.
A makeshift tire swing hangs from the branches. It’s hollowed out, and the bottom half is filled with filthy, swarming, squirming water. You never liked bugs. Or insects, or bugs, or insects. You… never liked bugs.
You had a cat, once. It was summer, and she went missing for a few days, a few weeks. You were the one who found her. The bugs lead you there. You were too young.
Your dad sat you down. Your mom had been shouting. He looked so tired. He told you everything was okay. Even this.
Sometimes, when a person or animal gets sick, they– or if they’re old, they might go to sleep for a long time? And they won’t wake up. But that’s okay. Because they know we will always love them. And they’re in a better place now.
Your dad said heaven, instead of Heaven. You could tell, even then. He held you as you cried. He told you he loved you.
And then he left.
The porch’s stairs creak and moan. There’s an old rocking chair by the back door, watching over the prairie. You give it a nudge. It grumbles, an elderly cat in the midday sun.
There’s a dog flap dug into the back door, but you’d never get your shoulders through. Did you have a dog? It doesn’t feel like it. You knock again. There’s no answer. But the door swings open.
The kitchen is bare and peeling. An old yellow-y paint. The floor is a sticky mess. Envelopes cover the counter. Long overdue. You can feel the oven’s heat from here.
Amidst it all, the fridge sits and waits. It’s the only thing in here that isn’t calling out to you. You run your hand over the door, covered in pizza menus and novelty magnets. And a drawing.
Crayon on printer stock. You and your family. A day at the seaside. You slide it out from under the fridge magnet. It’s not quite clear who’s who, but everyone looks happy. Everyone is smiling.
It wasn’t quite the seaside, your mom liked to remind you. It was the estuary. The place where the river meets the sea. A day out with family and friends.
You were a little dumb, but it wasn’t your fault, was it? It’s not as if you couldn’t swim. You just had a little too much confidence, and, well, a dare’s a dare. Swim across the river. It didn’t look too far. You could do it, easy.
A few years before, you’d been trying to learn to swim, and the waves came crashing down. You spent what felt like minutes underwater, tumbling and thrown against the sand. You knew it wasn’t worth struggling. Either the wave would let you go, or it wouldn’t. So you just held your breath.
That wasn’t like this. You made it halfway across the river before the panic set in. Dark shapes and shadows seemed to lurk beneath the surface. Can sharks swim up here from the ocean? Your muscles seized up. More water slipped through with every breath.
You don’t remember making it back to shore. You don’t remember coughing up water. You tried to tell your mom what happened. How you nearly drowned. But you didn’t drown, did you? It wasn’t your time. And you’d had such fun until then. We all had such a nice time. So why don’t you draw us all having a nice time? Building sand castles and sunbathing and– No, we were smiling, remember? Draw us smiling.
You drew a picture. You were by the beach. You built sandcastles. Your sister was there. You were a family. And everyone is smiling.
The dining room. The dining table. Two places are set. A lone candle burns. The sight fills you with sadness.
The lounge is carpet and tile. A long couch stretches around one corner. There’s a movie playing on the television set. It’s either muted, or even older than it looks. A fire roars in the fireplace. It roars. You used to love that sound.
When you were younger, you used to sit here and watch the fire. You’d fall asleep after a long day, and it’d be dark when you woke. Maybe there’d be dinner in the fridge, maybe you’d have to make it yourself. But you took the time to watch the fire burn. There was this sense of comfort that you felt as you watched it smoulder out. The world would wait for you.
But now the smoke stings at your eyes. You blink away tears. The fire roars, and you can see what it’s fuelled by. Letters and papers and photos. Flames lick at your fingers. You feel your skin blister. You know you can’t save them. But you try, all the same.
The entrance hall is far larger than it needs to be. They always were. A grand set of stairs leads up to the second floor. Framed photographs cover the walls. You can see yourself in some of them. Your dad isn’t here. There’s a few photos of your sister, but nothing new.
Amidst the photos, a pair of wooden crucifixes have been nailed to the wall. The thought it all it takes. The crosses are gone. The splinters throb, buried deep beneath your skin. And then they’re gone too.
The second floor is barely a corridor. Doors surround you on every side. That’s the door to your sister’s room. Once white, now burned and warped and black. The lock has twisted in the heat. You couldn’t unlock it if, even if you wanted to. And god, do you want to.
You step past your old room. A dozen memories tug at you, and you hold your head above the water. You make for the master bedroom. Dusty and pink and beige and… plain. Plainer than you remember. The bed is made on one side. The pillows unfluffed. You keep your eyes down, and don’t touch anything.
There’s a single toothbrush on the sink. There. In the jewellery box. Beneath the gaud and the gold. A heavy key. It weighs you down, the rust scratching at your palm as you grip it tight.
The door to the study. Your dad’s study. The key fits, and you wrench it open.
Something shifts in the air. Dust shimmers and drifts in the light. Books line the wall, and they greet you as one. A sturdy wooden desk sits in the corner of the room — overlooking the balcony, and the prairie beneath it.
You slide the glass door open, and step outside. From here, you can see everything. The air is fresh, fresher than it’s ever been. Stars speckle the sky. Overgrown grass stretches from here to the horizon, and not an inch further.
I’m sorry about, uh– I could have handled that better. Your cat had just died, and I… I couldn’t let your mom give you that talk. She doesn’t handle those sort of–
But uh… your brother’s been real quiet lately, pal. A little scarce. Do you think he’s okay? Has he said anything to you?
You shake your head. You could ask?
He ruffles your hair. It’s okay, he’ll take care of it.
The stars shine. Let yourself take it in. Take a breath. You’ve got nowhere to be.
But you do. The glass doors are gone, and with it, the study. In its place, a pair of tarnished elevator doors. You take a breath, and step inside.
The doors slide shut.
And now you’re somewhere else. Another corridor, full of metal pipes and dirt cheap lighting. One staircase, one elevator, no fire escape.
You unlock the door, and push through with your shoulder. Your apartment. Small and awful and dangerous. Way out of your price range. You have two jobs, and one of them doesn’t even pay you. But it’s yours. This place is yours.
You smell smoke. You breathe smoke. It fills the apartment.
You make for the window, and your boots hit metal. Your sister passes through a six pack, and joins you on the fire escape. It’s stopped snowing, but god_damn_ is it cold.
Third Christmas running, she’s doing better. She’s married. Same tax breaks, she says, but I get to wear a ring now. You’re doing better, too. That internship actually worked out. It became a career. You can afford the luxuries, you say, patting the fire escape. You sit together and watch the traffic and take a sip every time someone breaks a law.
The world goes past. And you’re together.
It’s dark now. You walk her to the subway. She asks if you’re okay, really? You think so. Been to church lately? God, no, not in years. She laughs. She’s had enough for one lifetime. You nod. They burned you out too.
A siren echoes down the street. The smell of smoke is even stronger now, and it fills your lungs.
You watched from the balcony as they drove away. It was night, and the stars shone, and the wind blew, and you were alone.
You’d never seen your mom drunk before. The things she couldn’t burn, she locked away. Your dad’s study was off limits. She had to carry you out of there. The next day, there was a lock on the door.
You kept praying. You needed something to drive you. You called her your brother for years. It took you too long to understand. You blamed them for leaving. Earnestly at first, then only on cue. You went to church. You kept praying. You kept your head down.
And then you left, too.
Your first night away from home, you slept in a bus station.
You clutch a small bag of food under your arm. You couldn’t have afforded dinner. There’s a local food pantry, but they tell you they’re always empty this time of year. Maybe you should try that Sikh church, just a few blocks away? You hadn’t wanted to. You couldn’t bring yourself to go back to church– any church, really.
It took you a week. But one way or another, you can’t stay hungry forever.
They hadn’t just given you dinner. They’d stuffed a bag full of food, insisted you take it. Told you to come back whenever you needed more.
You manage to make it home before you start cyring.
You’re in a comfortable room. Calming colours. You’ve made great progress over this last year, she tells you. You can’t meet her eye. Have you thought about calling your sister? Messaging her? Emailing? Of course you have.
This wasn’t your fault. None of it was. Just try to remember that, okay?
You try. You try every day, because you have to. Even on the days you beat it, it’s going to come back. So you can never stop trying.
For years, there’s been a misery, a fury, that’s eaten you alive from the inside out. You’ve fought it for so long. But now its teeth are blunt now. Not harmless, but blunt. If it’s a fury, then you let that fury drive you. Because despite everything, you’ve found friends to call family. You’ve started healing.
You’ve found a place to call home.
One last night.
You’re back with your sister on that fire escape.
It’s late. It scares you to think about, but you’re drunk, and you know she’s drunk too. So you ask. About death. About what happens next.
She takes another sip.
It’s hard to unlearn that shit. I think I have? I think. Mostly. But it’s hard, man. Is there a heaven? I kinda hope not. If they’re right, I’m not getting in. But you know me. I’d never want to be part of any club that wouldn’t have me as a member.
Reincarnation could be cool, you say. But would you come back as yourself? Or as someone else? She laughs. I can’t say I like the sound of either option.
She has a spark in her eye. Y’know, I reckon we get a choice. We might not even realise it. but maybe… wherever we end up? It’s where we expect to end up. And if you’re not sure, maybe you get to decide. Someone sits you down and lays out all your options, and you get to decide. No one has to be wrong. No one has to be alone. We all just… get what we’re looking for.
I dunno. Maybe that’s dumb. Maybe there’s just… nothing. She fidgets with the hem of her skirt. Maybe. But you kinda like the thought.
You sit in silence, her head on your shoulder.
Worst comes to worst, though? You both end up in hell? She would crush it down there. Three weeks before she’s running the joint.
She laughs. She’ll hook you up with a cushy desk job. You toast to that.
In a few hours, she’ll head home. But not yet.
You cherish this.
For one last night, you’re together.
You wake up on the couch. Your eyes are wet. It’s dark. The fire has died down. Embers glow inside the fireplace. You sit and watch them crackle, just for a while.
Maybe this is where you belong. Maybe you could try again. You’d like to think you’d do better, the next time through.
And maybe there’s another option. A place of your own. Would she be there?
Maybe it really is up to you.
An instant of quiet. The house stands still. The wind runs its hands through the prairie, and the old oak rustles a reply.
And then you’re gone. To wherever she’ll be.